An Absence Of Curiosity
When issues get as divisive in the world of letters as in the ongoing diatribes on VS Naipaul, media narrative gets stuffed with checklist boxes for attractively polarised opinions.
There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious casualties in this onslaught of boxes. In the immediate context of spats (in mainstream as well as social media) spurred by Girish Karnad’s stage-hijacked theatrical attack on Sir Vidia, some insidious dangers can be spotted.
Where is the Innocence of Curiosity? The Danger of Avoiding Alternative Narratives and Multiple Interpretations
Perhaps the most dangerous sign is that the innocence of pure curiosity is nowhere to be found in the media’s engagement with the ideas of controversial figures and contested works. While looking at Naipaul-provoked (and Naipaul-centric) debates on Indian history, society, politics, literature and the whole pathology of India’s civilisational skirmishes, media discourse has tended to seek comfort in binaries of pro/anti-India and pro/anti-Muslim vitriol. The interpretations and observations that Naipaul has offered in his writings concerning India as well as the Muslim world (in a body of work which includes An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, A Million Mutinies Now, Among the Believers, etc) need not be held hostage to such 2- D pro/anti takes. A very basic thing is missing in such polarised discourse. There seems to be no space for pristine curiosity about what multiple narratives are offering and how they explore different interpretations of history as well as our times. This basic and innocent curiosity of the human mind has to be restored its due dignity in media discourse on contested ideas.
For instance, there is a clear risk of stifling curiosity if we limit ourselves to assigning a school of historiography to Naipaul’s interpretation of Muslim invaders in Indian history (and his more general views on the Islamic world) and our colonial and post-colonial experiences. It’s important to remember that more sympathetic and secular accounts of the period (as seen in the works of Irfan Habib and Satish Chandra, eminent historians of medieval India and academic authorities on the subject) have also not escaped the charge of being influenced by a Marxist approach to historical studies. Their accounts, which form the basis of liberal intelligentsia’s view of the period, are generally juxtaposed with what Naipaul interprets (or for that matter, what rightist historians like RC Majumdar interpret).
But for an exploratory mind, both accounts need to be examined as different perspectives on the period based on available historical sources. In the absence of information about exact motives of arbiters of historical events and reconstruction of the period, ideological certitudes have restrictive effects on pursuit of knowledge and independent intellectual inquiry. For purposes of historical curiosity, both positions (even if ideology-driven) are equally valid or invalid points to begin one’s critical examination of historical sources and available perspectives. Curiosity would tolerate Naipaul and his ideas, regimented checklists would not.
And despite all the “weirdness” (assuming secular liberals are the norm) and political incorrectness of Naipaul’s historical understanding, it can be safely said EH Carr would have accommodated him his dialogue between past and present. In his seminal essay, What is History? Carr hinted that all perspectives deserve space for the simple reason of human curiosity.
Why does Mr Naipaul have to be your Complete Man – Modest, Generous and Good Guest and Host? He Can Be Relevant With an Acidic Tongue Too
Mr Naipaul hasn’t been coveting greatness to be showered on him by Indian media (that tag comes as a complimentary gift with Nobel Prize). But, for some reason, greatness in any field (literary, not the least) in this country also demands humility. Mr Naipaul has not been generous in proving his credentials of modesty or refuting his reputation of being arrogant. The problem for Indian media big shots (and some writers too) is that Naipaul has treated some of them with a disdain that has not gone down well with most of them. That partly explains the attempts to attack him on account of his idiosyncrasies and rudeness. But, does that take anything away from the literary merit of his work? Does that deny Naipaul his place as one of the most original thinkers and finest masters of prose of our times? No.
Binaries of “anti” and “pro” are signs of a dumbed-down media discourse which is not willing to look beyond two-dimensional narratives. In any multi-layered literary, intellectual and historical exploration, Mr Naipaul has to be an important figure. For that, curiosity would help. Exploring the world as he observed it has been his forté. Not surprisingly, his authorised biography carried the title, The World Is What It Is.